The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump trails Democratic rivals in national survey as independents move away

Ahead of the third Democratic presidential debate on Sept. 12, President Trump gave his predictions on the 2020 race. (Video: The Washington Post)

One year out from the 2020 election, President Trump trails some potential Democratic rivals in head-to-head matchups, with his national support level currently fixed at about 40 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The new poll highlights the degree to which most of the country already has made a judgment about the president’s performance and their voting preferences next year. Among the 39 percent of registered voters who approve of Trump’s job performance, Trump is winning at least 95 percent support against each of five possible Democratic opponents. But among the 58 percent of voters who disapprove of Trump, he receives no more than 7 percent support.

Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) run strongest against the president nationally, with Biden leading by 17 points (56 percent to 39 percent), Warren by 15 points (55 percent to 40 percent) and Sanders by 14 points (55 percent to 41 percent).

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the other two Democrats tested against Trump, also lead the president among registered voters, with Buttigieg up by 52 percent to 41 percent, and Harris ahead by 51 percent to 42 percent.

The poll reflects national findings; other surveys in the states expected to play an outsize role in the 2020 contest have shown tighter races, particularly in parts of the upper Midwest that Trump flipped from Democrats in 2016.

Nonetheless, the national results represent a shift away from Trump since the summer, when only Biden had a clear advantage over the incumbent. With Republicans and Democrats mostly locked in on their voting intentions, the biggest difference between the results from July and those in the new poll is that independents have moved in the direction of the Democratic candidates.

Read the full Post-ABC poll results | See results by group

One wild card is any possible impact that the impeachment proceedings might have on public attitudes. The current poll was completed just before the House voted along party lines to formalize the inquiry.

As the process moves to public hearings in the House and what many now expect to be articles of impeachment against the president and then a trial in the Senate, both sides will be watching for cracks in either Trump’s or his challengers’ coalitions.

In the fourth Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 15 in Westerville, Ohio, candidates gave their stances on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

National margins of the size in the new survey, if they were to hold for another year, would probably result in a popular-vote victory for the Democrats, possibly larger than the nearly 3 million-vote margin which Hillary Clinton earned over Trump in 2016.

That means Trump’s path to victory next year is to replicate the electoral college majority he fashioned by narrowly winning Florida, North Carolina and three states that had long been Democratic presidential strongholds — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — while easily winning Ohio and Iowa, which had been swing states in recent elections.

State-specific polls often have shown Trump’s job approval rating higher than it is nationally, pointing to the challenges for Democrats in their efforts to win back the White House next year. Though the president is not in a comfortable position heading into the election, Democrats still could have limited options and some obstacles to winning an electoral college majority regardless of the popular vote.

Trump runs behind the Democratic candidates despite generally positive assessments of the economy. A plurality (44 percent) of Americans say the economy has gotten better since Trump took office, twice the number who say it has gotten worse (22 percent). About a third say the economy has stayed about the same.

Of those who say it has gotten better, more than three in four give Trump a great deal or a good amount of credit. Of those who say it has gotten worse, more than eight in 10 say Trump deserves the blame.

Offsetting the benefits of the economy, Trump gets negative views on a series of attributes. Just over 3 in 10, or 31 percent say he is honest and trustworthy, tying the lowest result of his presidency. A slightly larger 36 percent say he has the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president. In both cases, just under 2 in 3 voters disagreed. Those findings are almost identical to results from a survey in October 2016, shortly before he won the presidency.

On other questions, 37 percent say Trump understands the problems “of people like you,” 40 percent say he is good at making political deals and 42 percent say he has brought needed change to Washington.

Overall, these results are low for an incumbent president, but Trump proved that he could overcome them in 2016 and his allies think he can do so again in 2020.

Thus far in the campaign, Trump has worked to enthuse his past supporters rather than try to extend his reach beyond already-loyal elements of the electorate. But the poll shows he is faring worse now than in 2016 election polls among non-college white voters as well as political independents, both groups that helped power his victory. In 2016, he won non-college whites by a 36-point margin, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, but he leads Biden by half that — 18 points among registered voters in this group in the latest Post-ABC poll.

Trump narrowly won self-identified independents in 2016 (46 percent to 42 percent) according to the National Election Pool exit poll, but in the latest Post-ABC poll he trails Biden by 17 points among this group.

Trump also receives less unified support among Republican voters — 80 percent in the current poll compared with 88 percent in the 2016 exit poll. Based on recent elections, Trump would expect to gain support among Republicans through the course of a reelection campaign.

As other markers, including fundraising and activism, have shown, voter intensity is high one year out from the election. Roughly 8 in 10 adults say they will definitely vote in the 2020 election and it appears to make little difference whether the Democratic nominee is Biden, Warren or Sanders. Similarly large majorities of Democrats and Republicans say they will definitely vote, regardless of the Democratic challenger.

But people ages 18 to 29 are slightly more likely to say they could skip the vote if the nominee were Biden or Warren — 34 percent and 38 percent, respectively — than if the nominee is Sanders (22 percent). Voters in other age groups say they are less likely to skip voting next year.

Biden builds his national margin over Trump with the support of female voters. He and Trump currently run evenly among men, at 47 percent. But Biden is swamping the president among women, 64 percent to 33 percent. Every Democrat tested gets at least 59 percent among women.

Among whites, all five Democrats are winning among those with college degrees, helping to blunt Trump’s advantage among those without college degrees. Among nonwhites, the Democratic candidates are running far ahead of the president.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 27-30 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, 65 percent of whom were reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error for results among adults is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is four points among the sample of 876 registered voters.